Reflections on teaching, forensic diving, oyster farming, and running a restaurant
By Steven Day, co-owner of
The Cook and Her Farmer in Oakland
Photos by Clara Rice
“Teachers have three loves: love of learning, love of learners, and bringing the first two loves together.”
It started with a bad day at work.
It was 2009. I was in the middle of a one-year teaching contract at an East Bay high school, where I was working with at-risk youth who were in great need of quality services and even greater need of a consistent, relevant educational curriculum that would connect them to resources. They needed to experience care through our actions as educators and not just have advice laid on them.
On that particular day, I had declined to support the new principal and shared too honestly that I did not have confidence in the team assembled to lead the school for the upcoming year. Well, I was informed that I would not be returning to the school, and that my remaining time would be reduced to part time. The changes were made within a week, and my students were absolutely outraged. They could not believe that (in their words) “grown-ass professionals would be that petty and in a Black school with Black teachers!” We actually had to hold my class in a computer lab.
I wanted to leave teaching forever.
Nursing my bad mood in front of a computer screen, I recalled something I’d heard someone say Oprah Winfrey once said:
“If you want to find out what you love doing, it’s that thing that you’d do for free.”
I knew what it was automatically. I wanted to be an underwater archaeologist.
I escaped into Google and started pulling up articles and images of underwater archaeologists, unfortunately learning that there really was no such thing as a paid underwater archaeologist. On the university level, there are professors and adjunct professors who are qualified research divers, but they may or may not receive additional compensation for their diving-related activities, and I did not even possess the qualifications to teach at the university level.
Repeating the search, I found a large number of police diving articles. Instant attraction, except that I had zero interest in being a police officer. Yet, now I was fascinated with the work that law enforcement agency forensic divers do. First off, it looked cool (and embarrassingly petty, but nonetheless true, is that I grew up in the ‘80s when everything was rated on whether or not it looked cool). Also, I thought I’d be qualified to do it since I had watched several episodes of Forensic Files. Never mind that 95% of their crimes were committed and solved on land. Plus, I was dreaming; I knew it’d never happen, but dreaming is free, so I indulged myself. It was far better than staying mired in frustration over my now-part-time, soon-to-be-gone high school job.
Then I came across the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office Volunteer Dive Team. WHAT? I can do this and not become a cop? I printed that information and placed it into a folder, which I sat on for nearly a year. Then one day I picked up the phone, called the number, and when Lt. Rebecca Gandsey answered, I remember saying something really ridiculous in one long sentence: “Uh, yeah, uh, I saw your ad, there’s a lot of white guys on that team; I can swim*; I’m Black.” Click.
Yes, I hung up the phone, sat on my couch, and felt donkey ears growing out of my head. What was I thinking? So, I called back a few minutes later, and Lt. Gandsey was still laughing. She said: “Wait don’t hang up, who are you?” So, I gave her my name, and she remarked that she’d already contacted two team captains and asked if she could share my info with them. I spent the next year attending meetings and observing their training. In December 2010, we classed up with six individuals, who Lt. Gandsey named the Secret Six, and all six of us made it through several months of very intensive training, with me being the least qualified member of that training class. The rest, as they say, is history. Lt. Gandsey retired after my first year on the team. I’ll never forget her. She gave me a chance. It’s been my life experience that women have listened. I know that she is proud of me because I am still with the diver group 10 years later. But there’s one huge change that we are so very proud of: We now have female members of the team—finally!
Oprah was right!
*on learning to swim at age 32
I taught myself to swim during the 33-month period I spent pursuing a career in law, when I had internships with the Oakland Raiders and the Department of Justice (where I worked for a time under Robert Mueller). Learning to swim required playing many roles: coach, player, concerned parent, trainer, and doctor. I made mistakes and suffered physically at times. Talking to myself in the changing room, on the deck, and in and under the water morphed into a kind of therapy for me. My sojourn was into an inner space, where I began to remote-view my life in a way and in a medium that requires intense concentration. I inevitably began to analyze things, rehearsing future scenarios and sorting out how I would process things as they came up. In short, I discovered another side of self and grew from there. I problem-solved underwater. It became a refuge and a safe space when I didn’t know that I needed one. Young people on the brink of discovery could really benefit from time in another world such as this. We swim as infants with complete abandon, but it’s not so much swimming as engaging effortlessly in an extension of the dark waters of the time right before we are born. We lose that connection over time, and rarely is the gap ever closed. There is a different world under the surface, and I am a more complete version of Steven when I engage in that world.
oysters are “honest food”
It was Romney Steele who led me into the world of oysters. It was around 2010 or 2011, long before we ever had any conversations about starting a restaurant. She called oysters “honest food.” It resonated within and piqued my curiosity. While walking and talking on the shores of Tomales Bay, Romney presented such a fascinating picture of what could be. I’d never really given much thought to food beyond my most primal urges, and while I was aware of food aesthetics, I’d never thought about where my food was sourced. It has always been a value of Romney’s, and became mine by extension, that we “keep our hands and feet in the soil and water as much as possible.”
So, it came about that I spent 15 months on Tomales Bay helping out the legendary oyster farmers who make that industry into a net-positive ecological endeavor. They taught me, Romney, and quite a few Oakland students about aquaculture. That time looms large in my psyche. They taught me everything that I know about small, communal oyster farming using the old Roman technique of bottom bagging, whereby the oyster seedlings lay on the bottom of the body of water and are tumbled in the tide as it ebbs and flows. We learned about ocean acidification, the oyster life cycle, uses of oyster shells to form wave breakers (like kids in Long Island are doing with the Billion Oyster Project). Those months have invested me with a lifetime love for bivalves and the environment in which they live and grow. For their part, oysters—being filter feeders—can help remove phosphorus, nitrogen, or other elements from the water where those elements are in too great a concentration.
A single oyster can filter 30 gallons of water in a single day—one oyster!
At Tomales Bay, we also participated in a short-lived one-acre communal oyster farm called Pickle Weed Point with Luc Chamberlin, who now has his own café in Inverness called Saltwater. Through Luc, we gained a wonderful connection and friendship with one of our oyster suppliers, Tomales Bay Oyster Company (TBOC) and the sister\brother team Heidi and Shannon Gregory, who run the oyster farm and the Marshall Store. I have taken a couple classes of students to TBOC for field trips.
on starting and running a restaurant
Romney and I decided that we had something we could offer to Oakland, and we began to have conversations about going into business serving fresh, local oysters on the half shell with garlic fries (she’d hock her homemade jams on the side). We bandied names about trying to capture and fulfill what we felt best described our envisioned café. After about an hour of throwing out ridiculously chichi names, I remember Rom saying: “Lookit; I’m the cook and you’re the farmer; that’s what it is.” I loved it the second she said it, and we went with it. However, Mother Nature is the best farmer, and I just want to help, so my title as “farmer” should not extend beyond the mere 15 months that I spent learning about aquaculture.
Still, we have made it a priority for the “Farmer” to go and volunteer time, energy, and muscle to learn about urban farms such as Acta Non Verba and WOW Farm in Oakland, organizations that we have worked with and sourced from since day one. A favorite dish at our café is Penn Cove mussels, so Romney had us catch a plane back in 2015 to travel to the Penn Cove Shellfish farm in Washington to see what they were doing. That is how the “Cook” moves. I love that she forces learning, and I am an eternal student.
As owner-operator, Romney has taken the full brunt of this huge shift as every single thing has changed during Covid. My role? I back her to the hilt; that is the cornerstone of our partnership. We refer to the operating agreement we created, which says a lot of things about folks staying in their respective lanes. So, as we have been shifting, I of course have pivoted in what I do for my business. Romney called me during the initial shelter in place and said: “Boss (we call each other boss), we need you to be the dishwasher for the foreseeable future.” My response was: “I’m on the way.” The next phone call Romney says: “Hey, we are cooking for OUSD [Oakland Unified School District] students and I want them to have your fried chicken for lunch. Come down here and do your thing.” My reply? “I’m on my way.” We are so proud to have retained most of our staff, we continue to pay them a living wage, and we have drawn closer to each other. Every member of our team works exceptionally hard to prepare healthy, nutritious meals of love with care and a deep respect for what we do and who we serve.
a return to teaching during covid
My next iteration as an educator began in September, and I intend to actively advocate for all students, and especially students of color, to seek careers under the surface of water. I want to honor one of my former Castlemont students of whom I am most proud, Daniel Luca-Harris. He graduated in 2009 and recently co-founded the East Oakland Grocery Cooperative to deal with the food desert that is East Oakland, where he is from. His co-op has been getting some quality exposure, and he circled back and asked me to serve on the board of directors. Talk about going full circle!
family food history
My stepfather, Thomas Wynn Jr., passed away the week of Father’s Day last year, so it was just my mom who reminisced with me recently about our food history in Memphis, Tennessee. She says she loves watching me eat because I have such a loving relationship with all foods. She remarked that my older brother is picky to this very day: toffee not caramel, sherbet not ice cream, etc. But Steven? My mother said I never rejected any food as a baby, and it is still the same.
The Memphis branch of the family is small; however, my brother and I were born in Chicago, where our (birth) father had 15 siblings. Now they do some eatin’. Best party food I ever ate was at my father’s repast in a Chicago church in 2012. They still talk about how I pored through dishes of sautéed cabbage, neckbones, and mustard greens. I love it that country Southern-style food—food that was for poor black folks—has experienced a sort of rebirth, albeit in more, ahem, privileged circles.
All of this food talk has made me hungry! I’m headed to The Cook & Her Farmer. ♦
Clara Rice has been photographing East Bay businesses for most of the ten years she’s been living here, and she’s always excited to discover a new gem. See more of her work at clararice.com.
Steven Day’s Southern-Style Buttermilk Fried Chicken
“In Memphis, we used a doubled brown grocery bag to overcoat the chicken. We’d pour the seasoned flour inside, add and shake the chicken, then shake off excess coating before frying in the cast-iron skillet. We also use the large brown paper bag to coat and fry catfish, crappies (my mother’s favorite along with perch), whiting, buffalo, or any other mid-South favorite.
“I typically fry 10 pieces just for myself when I get down, and I can’t eat the chicken without a kosher pickle, white bread, and Crystal Louisiana Hot Sauce, but you can have it with sautéed cabbage and rice or your favorite vegetable.”
10 chicken parts; thighs, wings, and breasts are preferred
Lawry’s Seasoning Salt
1 pint cultured buttermilk
Vegetable oil (enough to fill a cast-iron skillet ¾ full)
1 pound flour
1 teaspoon garlic salt
2 pinches paprika
2 pinches black pepper
Clean and dry the chicken parts. Season them with the Lawry’s and place in a bowl with the cultured buttermilk. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
Fill a large cast iron skillet ¾ full with vegetable oil. Heat to 350°.
Mix the flour and seasonings. Remove chicken parts from the buttermilk one at a time and shake with the flour mixture inside your paper bag to coat. Fry each piece in the heated oil until golden brown and crisp.
Lick your fingers and ENJOY!